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Monday, November 25, 2019

Empty Windows

by Sara Birch

"You know, Short here saw angels in his window one night. They were floating around outside, lookin' in at him. He said they were beautiful."

My stepfather came closer. I shrank back and peered at the little man he'd brought into the house. They both smelled like liquor, old sweat, and something else. Something sinister.

Short lived up to his name. A tiny man, his face, whiskers and clothes were gray, a wraith who rose from the desert floor and seeped under our door like fog. He was beaming, a pilgrim who had seen the face of God and lived to tell about it. Short was a believer, right down to his scuffed shoes and empty wallet.

We had recently moved to a rental house in Phoenix. Our living room had a television set balanced on a wobbly metal stand and two faded chaise lounges we found in the backyard. The house was dusty, battered. There were spiders in corners and stains on the walls.

The sliding glass doors were fly-spotted, greasy with fingerprints, cracked at the bottom. Beyond the doors, the lawn had turned to straw long ago, bleached by the sun. Far from my friends, my only visitors were jet streams, white billowing lines that shattered the blue as people left the desert for somewhere else.

I was seventeen years old that summer. A high school graduate, I had barely earned my diploma. A career truant, I was steeped in too much trauma to tolerate the normalcy of school. When my mother and step-father announced they were venturing west again, I had reluctantly signed on. There were no other options.

So, two months before, I had helped push an old washing machine up the ramp of a U-Haul trailer, along with beds, lamps, and clothes, the detritus of a tattered life. Cardboard boxes, once filled with memorabilia, were a reminder of a past when things weren't as crazy. We had fallen on hard times. My step-father was a drunk and a cruel man. My mother was confused, depressed, and strapped with a toddler. Her boxes held a lifetime of broken dreams. They'd decide where to go in the morning. A flip of a coin. All I knew was we were heading west. Maybe California or Arizona.

The sun rose, and it was off on another trip down Route 66 in the back of a pickup truck. I hung on to my old cat in her crate. We careened through mountain passes and across bridges that spanned canyons so vast, it was tempting to jump from the truck and fling myself over the guardrail to see if I could fly somewhere better, where men weren't cruel, mothers didn't cry, a place where hope might guide us into something brighter. The frightened cat urinated. It seeped out of the crate and into my clothes. I reeked of urine. The wind across the bow of the truck bed was chilling, stiffening my jeans.

We drove all day and into the night. Overhead were a million stars, chips in the ragged night as though it wore sequins. "At least there's that," I thought. The stars didn't care who I was, or where I was going. They danced for me the way they  did years ago, when I was a little girl and wondered what hid in the folds of darkness.
When I was four years old, teachers at my Sunday School gave me a picture of Jesus in Sunday School. His likeness fit in the palm of my hand, and it glowed in the dark. I huddled deep in the closet among the shoes and dirty clothes, staring at his serene face, which was bathed in a greenish light.

When I was seven, I wrote letters to God and tossed them in the fireplace, hoping He read the smoke signals as my words rose from the chimney and into the universe.

My mother re-married when I was twelve. I left Jesus behind on the closet floor. We journeyed down empty roads with the Devil at our backs. But sometimes, the Devil walked through the front door with a guest.
Short got the extra bedroom. He slept on the floor in a blanket. I did my best to avoid him, but he'd corner me, sharing stories of angels. He saw himself as a missionary for a celestial realm, there to guide us on a pathway to Heaven. Foul breath breached yellowed teeth and struck my face in clouds. Recalling the picture of Jesus in the closet, a thirsty space in me wanted to believe in Short’s angels. I carried his words into my room like a disciple and unpacked them on my pillow each night. Nothing appeared in the windows, nor did I hear heavenly music. The only sounds were a dog barking at dawn, and the furtive noises in a slumbering house. Nights were disappointing, and the days glared in the desert sun.

One afternoon, Short and my step-dad staggered in, beer burps tangling with onions and peanuts. They had been on a bender, days spent at the nearby Elbow Room, a hollowed-out nest for drunks and vipers.

"Short's going back home. I'm gonna put him on a Greyhound." my step-father announced.

Nodding, I went back to reading a book, feigning indifference. I figured I'd never know if angels peered in the windows now that Short would take his crusade elsewhere.

Short said goodbye, rheumy eyes dancing in his head. He left under the guidance of my step-father. They leaned inwards towards each other, shuffled out to the pick-up truck, an ark in a sea of sand. 
The next day I walked four blocks to a pay phone and waited.  At four o'clock, it rang.

"Hi," I said.

My boyfriend's voice was far away. About fifteen hundred miles as the crow flies. He was a nice boy who came from a good family. He had no idea what I had gone through for years. None of my friends did. In my family, we wore our secrets well.

He held me tight the night before I left. We stood on the front steps at midnight. The porch light had burned out long ago. The truck and trailer crouched in the driveway like mongrels who hungered for the road.

"I'll miss you," he whispered. A chilling wind blew through our clothes, ruffled our hair. I saw his silhouette in the dark, placed my head on his chest.

"I'll miss you, too," I said, then stepped across the threshold and closed the door on normal.

Every week, on Sunday afternoon, I stood in the phone booth, cooking in the heat. A few cars honked as they passed. I closed the door and turned my back. Wiped the sweat from my forehead.

"How are you?" he asked, his voice warm and concerned.

"Good," I lied, knowing I'd never see him again. I held the dirty phone to my mouth as we talked, wondered who else spoke into it, or thumbed through the ripped pages of the directory. What other nomads had stood here tethered to a cord that reached across the miles?
Years later, a man would follow me home from a train station in the Midwest. He'd write a song about me and the angels Short had promised. We'd sing in coffee houses, then dance in empty boxcars by the railroad tracks.

By then the angels would be just part of a story, a chapter in a life spent counting telephone poles along empty highways.

But on that day, in the summer of my seventeenth year, I opened the phone booth and stepped onto an uneven sidewalk. Looking down, I noticed weeds pushing through the cement. Weeds that would survive long after the sidewalk crumbled under the cruel sun. Weeds that flourished and never gave up, no matter how often they were stepped on.

That night, I parted the curtains in the bedroom, pretended the tears on my cheeks were milk from the moon etching stars on my face. I wondered if I looked like an angel through the pane to seekers who passed in the darkness.

Sara Birch writes about growing up in an unconventional family. As a young girl, Sara moved multiple times throughout the United States. Her dream was to stay in one place long enough to find her way around in the dark. She currently lives between the mountains and the sea, with rain as her muse.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Brush with Greatness

by J.D. Scrimgeour

At the end of summer in 1982, my family drove me from our home in New Milford, Connecticut, a town of 20,000 in the southern Berkshires and helped me unload my meager belongings—a few bags of clothes—in Carman Hall, the freshman dorm at Columbia University. While I had been to the city a few times, living in the frenzy of Manhattan was an adjustment. One time that first year my family joined me in the city to watch a basketball game, and when they returned to their car, they discovered that someone had broken into it. The thieves had stolen a couple ratty sleeping bags and a few of my siblings’ high school textbooks. The following year, two students in Carman Hall found a rolled-up rug in a dumpster and carried it back to their room. When they unrolled it, they discovered a corpse inside, a man who had been shot twice.
It wasn’t just the grittiness of New York in the 1980s that left me disoriented; I had to adjust to being around so many people who had lived lives so different from what I had known. As someone who had attended public schools, I was fascinated by all my classmates who had attended private boarding schools, places I’d only read about in The Catcher in the Rye. And Columbia was cosmopolitan. I remember going for ice cream during orientation week with students from Italy and France, hearing languages and accents that were foreign to my ears.
Another adjustment was that there were so few women. My class, the class of 1986, was the last all-male class at Columbia, a fact that I’d hardly registered when I decided to attend. I knew that Barnard was just across the street, and I had assumed that the students all took the same classes. They didn’t. In order to meet the women from Barnard, I would go with friends to the campus pub where we’d drink pitchers of beer. At some point, I’d muster courage to saunter up to a stranger and ask her to dance. She usually said no, and I’d slink back to my table and pour another into my plastic cup. It seemed simply impossible to meet a woman. Even if a conversation were to begin amid the too-loud music, what was I supposed to say?
I was adrift, and even the routines that I developed were those of someone who was lonely: playing hours of pick-up basketball in Levien Gymnasium and watching David Letterman’s late-night show in the TV lounge at the end of our floor. I got a kick out of Letterman’s sardonic humor, his stupid pet tricks, and his “Brush with Greatness” segments, in which members of the studio audience shared comic stories about how they crossed paths with celebrities. Having a brush with greatness may have been one of the reasons I chose to attend Columbia. Being in New York held the possibility of seeing famous people, and, in fact, I walked past Letterman himself in Midtown one afternoon as he was filming on the street.

That first semester I’d take The Odyssey or Euripides’ plays out to the campus lawn and lie reading in the sun, hardly registering the words, dozing off more often than not. My classes all went well enough, except for the class in my declared major, Math. Before the semester started, I met with an advisor to help choose my classes. “Wouldn’t you like to take a class with a world-famous mathematician?” he asked, and so I decided to take the test to place into a theoretical calculus course taught by a professor named Lipman Bers. The test was like the SAT, and I did well enough to get in.
Lipman Bers was old, from eastern Europe, with a thick moustache and a thick accent. He had us buy a book with more equations than words. Unlike my math classes in high school, we never had to turn in homework. It wasn’t always clear what our homework was.
It was a small class, a dozen students in a musty room. Although a seminar table filled the space, we didn’t sit around it exactly. A blackboard ran along one side of the room, and Bers would lecture in front of it, so we would sit in two rows on either side of the table, facing the board. I sat in the back corner, the table in front of me. In the front center sat Daniel, the thirteen-year-old with a bowl cut of black hair and just visible fine dark hair above his lip, the beginnings of a mustache. Daniel was, I’d heard, the captain of the U.S. math team, whatever that meant. I don’t think he was enrolled at Columbia; he was just taking this one class.
It seemed like Daniel was the only person, besides Bers, who spoke in class. He’d raise a scrawny arm and ask a question that I didn’t understand. Bers’ eyes would light up. “That’s a very interesting question, Daniel,” he’d say, and the two of them would engage in a long dialogue while the rest of us—or maybe it was just me—sat in befuddlement. Eventually, I began doodling in my notebook, rehashing my stats from my senior year baseball season or reviewing possible starting line-ups for the Knicks. I passed that class with a gentleman’s C, dropped down to a more standard Calculus class the next semester, and dropped that after I bombed my first test. I wasn’t going to be a math major.

I’ve told the story of that math class many times. It seemed a story about discovering one’s limits, though, to be honest, it involved pumping my ego, too—I was good enough in math to place into that class, after all. And the audience always got a kick out of my embellished description of how lost most of us were while Daniel and Bers held their abstruse conversations.
But recently, while writing about this event, I began to wonder about Lipman Bers. He really was, of course, a world-famous mathematician. He was born in a Jewish family in Riga, Latvia, at the beginning of World War I, and his early life was colored by the political upheavals of the first half of the twentieth century. He spent time in St. Petersburg and Berlin. While studying math at the University in Riga, he became a political activist who argued for human rights, an orator and columnist for an underground newspaper, defending democracy in the face of Latvia’s dictator. A warrant was issued for his arrest, but he escaped to Prague. He fled from Prague to Paris with his family, and then, just ahead of the Germans, he fled to the United States. Living as a refugee, he continued to work on mathematics. He eventually did math work assisting the allied war effort, and then went on to write many important papers in the field, known for their elegance and clarity.
He was admired by his students and fellow mathematicians, and a recent book, Lipman Bers: A Life in Mathematics, celebrates his achievements. Mathematician William Abikoff writes this about Bers:

Lipa possessed a joy of life and an optimism that is difficult to find at this time and that is sorely missed. Those of us who experienced it directly have felt an obligation to pass it on. That, in addition to the beauty of his own work, is Lipa’s enduring gift to us.

Bers had a way not just with numbers, but with words. I laughed aloud when I came across his line that “Mathematics is a collection of cheap tricks and dirty jokes,” though I don’t know enough about math to really understand it. Throughout his career, he also continued to advocate for human rights. Here’s Bers himself, speaking about human rights in 1984, when he was awarded an honorary degree from SUNY-Stonybrook:

By becoming a human rights activist ... you do take upon yourself certain difficult obligations. ... I believe that only a truly even-handed approach can lead to an honest, morally convincing, and effective human rights policy. A human rights activist who hates and fears communism must also care about the human rights of Latin American leftists. A human rights activist who sympathizes with the revolutionary movement in Latin America must also be concerned about human rights abuses in Cuba and Nicaragua. A devout Muslim must also care about human rights of the Bahai in Iran and of the small Jewish community in Syria, while a Jew devoted to Israel must also worry about the human rights of Palestinian Arabs. And we American citizens must be particularly sensitive to human rights violations for which our government is directly or indirectly responsible, as well as to the human rights violations that occur in our own country, as they do.

Bers retired from teaching at Columbia in 1982. The class I took with him may have been the last he ever taught.  
I wish I could claim that Bers and his vision, expressed so eloquently above, had an impact on me, but it’s only through the lens of time that I see more than myself in that room—those other students may have been getting a lot more from the class than I imagined. And, having learned a bit about him, I can better see Bers, a man brilliant and committed, see the spark between him and Daniel. What did I know?
It was my first semester, and I was a lost boy. I needed grounding myself to see others. I went on find circles of friends at Columbia, to find a girlfriend when I lived in Barnard dorms my sophomore year. Eventually, I no longer needed David Letterman’s late-night company. And my junior year, I started to put my own words down. I took classes with the poet Kenneth Koch and legendary literature professor Wallace Gray, early steps on the path to becoming a writer.
That same year, I took to the cold March nights to join students who blocked the doors to Hamilton Hall, a main classroom building, demanding that the University divest its financial holdings in South Africa and South African companies. Some of my friends scoffed at the protests, and their cynicism made me doubt my conviction, but, ultimately, I could do the math.
I was usually alone those nights, one of the crowd. Many of those around me were people who, I had been taught, did not look like me. I sat among them all and listened to the speeches, the music, the drumming.
I took in the world, and the world took me in.
Writing this essay, I became curious about Daniel. Perhaps discovering Bers’ words, his insistence on being aware of all others, made me wonder about Daniel and his life. I googled “Daniel, mathematician, born 1970,” and I discovered Daniel, a mathematician at an Ivy League university. I thought the thin face, something about the nose, looked familiar, and so I sent an email. Sure enough, it was him. He read the essay and was gracious and self-depreciating. He confirmed the bowl haircut; he didn’t recall the table. He said he had read some of Bers’ papers and built on his work. I hope that in my own way I’m building on Bers’ work as well.

J.D. Scrimgeour is the author of three books of poetry and two of nonfiction, including Themes for English B: A Professor's Education In & Out of Class, which won the AWP Award for Nonfiction. Recent essays have appeared in blackbirdSolstice, Sport Literate, and The Woven Tale Press.